February 19, 2008
Pagan Christianity (Part 2)
A final editorial interjection into a heated discussion.
Many of you have requested a more formal review of Pagan Christianity, and I feel obliged to provide one. It should be said, however, that Out of Ur is not usually a place for reviews. We offer snippets and opinions and let you guys do the talking. However, this is an important topic, and it deserves a response (in the absence of a true review).
My concern with this book is that it is not what it claims to be. Viola argues that he has presented a careful and thorough exploration of Scripture and Church history. He simply hasn't.
In the chapter "The Pastor," Viola's entire biblical argument against the modern pastorate is based on the fact that the word "pastor" appears only once in the New Testament. He does reference (in parentheses) several other passages, as some of you have noted. But he does not interpret them and allow them to challenge his conclusion. Consider the following (Look these up; I can only list them):
o James 3:1
o 1 Timothy 3:1; 5:18
o 1 Peter 5:2
o 1 Corinthians 9:9
Taken together, these passages don't mean that the pastorate ought to look like it does today. But they do make the issue more complicated than Viola acknowledges.
Regarding church history, Viola says there was no official leadership in the church until the second century. However, Clement of Rome, in the late first century, spoke of the office of bishop (and its "dignity") as if it were established fact (see his Epistle to the Corinthians). Viola also fails to acknowledge that the need for official leadership arose, in part, as a safeguard against heresy - serious heresy, like denial of the deity of Christ.
Viola glosses over the tremendous complexities of historical shifts, as the one from Roman persecution to Constantinian support of Christianity. The clarity of hindsight tells us that Constantinianism did untold damage to the church. But the church fathers must have imagined the shift as the fulfillment of God's kingdom on earth. It is little wonder, then, that they took full advantage of their liberty and built churches where they could gather in peace.
By failing to deal seriously with the messiness of history, Viola is woefully ungracious to the historical figures themselves. Men like Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa and others in those early years of priesthood felt the full weight of their responsibility as shepherds of men's and women's souls. They made mistakes, to be sure, but they are brothers and sisters in Christ and, as such, deserve to be read sympathetically.
Viola's use of sources is also a bit irresponsible. He relies too heavily on secondary sources. Other times he cites authors who do not support the whole of his position. Karl Barth (p.122), for example, disapproved of the clergy-laity distinction, but he worked firmly within the established church. After all, his magnum opus was entitled Church Dogmatics.
While failing to reference key Scriptures and glossing over historical complexity, Viola pronounces his interpretation as if every other is heresy and abomination. I could ignore the cavalier tone if it did not claim to be "immovable, historical truth."
There is a deep need in America for revival in the way we understand the church. I wrestled with many of the issues Viola addresses during my master's program in Church history. And while I'm as fearful as the next guy of the veneration of systems and institutions, I also fear that this book obscures the true issue: true disciples can emerge from any and every church model. We are not called to "do" church a certain way; we are called to imitate Christ.
Allow me an argument from experience. I have been a member of several different churches. In one the pastor was a tyrant, and the church was unhealthy as a result. I served as pastor in another of the same denomination. The little church all but venerated the pastor's position (which scared me to death), but never have I met a more faithful group of believers. I was also a pastor on a team in which there was no senior pastor. That church became unhealthy and devolved into a tiny, self-seeking cell. I'm now a member of a liturgical, historical denomination. Our church has its problems, but even though there is an official hierarchy, functionally the church operates as a family. What I mean to say is this. I've participated in leadership in several forms of church. Each has is problems. The issue is not forms.
This book and its apparent success distress me because I dearly love the church. I love the church because the New Testament makes it clear that the Church is God's body on earth, the head of which is Christ. And I fear that books like this one threaten to hack that body into bits.